The Swift Boating of Audiophiles Page 2
Not everything that happened last fall was unpleasant. For instance, the Wall Street Journal's Lee Gomes interviewed me for his September 12, 2007, "Portals" column, "Are Technology Limits in MP3s and iPods Ruining Pop Music?" I don't agree that MP3 compression and/or the Apple iPod is to blame for the poor sound quality of much of today's pop music, or for the ridiculous amount of dynamic compression that is applied to most pop recordings these days, and Gomes let me say that and many other things in a long interview you can download here. I also prepared for him some WAV and MP3 files of the same recordings (some from vinyl) that you can also download and compare. Even on a laptop, I think you'll hear the difference.
All good, right? Not entirely. Wall Street Journal theater and music critic Terry Teachout seems to find the very concept of good sound damn annoying, maybe even repellent. Back in September 2002 he wrote an article, "Listening Will Never Be the Same," for the neocon journal Commentary, in which he took the absolutist position that record stores would become extinct, along with music's distribution via physical media. In that article he also wrote that he is "rarely capable of telling the difference between an MP3 file and the original CD from which it has been ripped." Imagine a film critic writing that he could rarely tell the difference between a 35mm print projected in a movie theater and a 16mm print viewed on a bedsheet or worse, claiming it was a perfectly satisfactory way to view a movie for review.
The article generated pages of letters from readers in the December 2002 Commentary, most of whom took issue with it for one reason or another. Musician and writer Richard M. Sudhalter, while agreeing that files will "assume the importance and centrality Mr. Teachout predicts," compared files to e-mails and wrote that there's a "concreteness" about LPs and CDs that "allows it to become the music," and stated his belief that "the need for the music artifact will surely remain with us."
Bill Kirchner, another musician-writer, took issue with Teachout's assertion that the album will disappear simply because kids can download pop singles.
Reader Louis M. Galie was "amazed" that Teachout can't usually distinguish a CD from an MP3, adding that the two are "substantially different."
I wrote to say that, although it would never replace CDs, vinyl was making a comeback among young people, and (in an argument similar to Sudhalter's) that they liked the "thing" itself. I also said that MP3 sound was like "fast food," and that McDonald's had no more made gourmet restaurants extinct than MP3s will eliminate records and the stores that sell them (a point also made by Sudhalter).
In his response, also in the December 2002 Commentary, Teachout slunk away from his absolutist position without saying so. He wrote about the record industry's futile battle with file sharing, claiming that it's a technology war they've already lost: "Michael Fremer, who is an audiophile, is fighting a different war, one that was lost two decades ago." (Translation: I'm an audiophile, therefore I'm a loser).
"The appeal of the LP is at bottom nostalgic," wrote Teachout, and while he (charitably) isn't "unsympathetic to those who feel the tug of this nostalgia" (retch, gag), "it is a mistake to suppose that it will have any discernible effect on the music business of the 21st century, save among the tiniest possible minority of antique collectors." Antique collectors?
In his December 2002 response in Commentary, Teachout went on to write that "Richard M. Sudhalter and Bill Kirchner are both noted jazz musicians and writers on music, and their view of the future, unlike Mr. Fremer's, may be right." And how is my view of the future—that physical media (LPs, CDs, etc.) will survive, in part because kids enjoy the "thing"—"wrong" and different from Sudhalter's and Kirchner's? Because I also said that vinyl was making a comeback, though it would never replace CDs? There's nothing "wrong" with that. Therefore, I must be "wrong" simply because I'm an audiophile—and that can't be right, can it?
"I am not an audiophile," Teachout declared. "I am a musician who listens to records for musical pleasure, and I have no great interest in sound quality for its own sake, though obviously I prefer good to bad. (When I want to hear really good sound, I go to a concert.)"
What is the difference between that self-description and being an "audiophile"? It's that you and I don't listen for musical pleasure, we listen to "sound quality for its own sake."
This week I e-mailed Teachout a scan of the cover of the November 17, 2007 issue of Billboard, which proclaimed, "The iPod Generation Takes Vinyl for a Spin."
I Fired Back
"To the editor: I feel compelled to respond to Terry Teachout's incomprehensible (actually, uncharacteristically snotty) response to my letter. Mr. Teachout charges that the return of the turntable is an exercise in 'nostalgia.' Why? Because it is an old technology? Then surely he thinks listening to the 'old music' of Miles Davis or Louis Armstrong must also be an exercise in nostalgia. People are spinning vinyl again because the technology is more musically nourishing than CD, and certainly than MP3. What really galled me about his response though, was his referring to me as an 'audiophile' (as if the mere identification is damning enough) whereas he's a 'music lover' who nonetheless appreciates good sound. For Commentary readers needing a definition, an 'audiophile' is a music lover who appreciates good sound. So what distinction was he trying to make? If this had been a dispute about gourmet food versus fast food and I had been an editor at Gourmet magazine, would Mr. Teachout have made the ad hominem attack 'Michael Fremer is a gourmet. I am a food lover?' I don't think so! Good vinyl is gourmet quality sound. MP3 is McDonald's."
Maybe it wasn't my mention or Lee Gomes's interview of me in the Wall Street Journal, but something in that recent edition of "Portals" inspired Teachout, because he refers to it in his "The Deaf Audiophile" in the November 10, 2007 edition of the WSJ, subtitled "What's so good about bad sound? Plenty." No, I didn't make that up. You should read it before reading my following unpublished letter to the editor:
"Terry Teachout's hearing isn't what it once was. Whose is after 50? Taste buds go, reflexes go, and for those who don't exercise, physiques (not to mention sex drives) head south. Yet would anyone write, and would you publish a story foolishly suggesting aging as a reason to switch from gourmet to fast food? From fine Bordeaux to box wine? From a high performance car to your father's Oldsmobile? Or from Canali to Men's Warehouse? I doubt it because such a story would be as foolish on its face as Mr. Teachout's. He's had an anti-audiophile fixation for years that he obviously felt the need to exercise today, even at the cost of appearing irrational on your pages. Sincerely, Michael Fremer senior contributing editor (and music lover), Stereophile."
At deadline time, yet another anti-audiophile piece appeared, this time in The New York Times' Arts & Leisure section, written by opera critic Anthony Tommasini, titled "Hard Being an Audiophile in an iPod World." Here's an excerpt from yet another letter to the editor that I felt obligated to write:
"The iPod is no more responsible for 'thinning the ranks of audiophiles' over the last decade than cheap, fast food has depleted the ranks of gourmets, or cheap wine has 'thinned the ranks' of oenophiles....Consumers are demanding higher quality food and seeking out better wine. Why? Because gourmet food and fine wine continue to receive enthusiastic coverage in the mainstream press and people who appreciate them are respected, while quality sound gets ignored, or worse, gets the kind of treatment you've chosen to give it this week—a perverse, gleeful dismissal—and audiophiles are looked upon as either 'odd' or 'deluded' for paying the same attention to sound that others pay to food or wine, or clothes, or cars, or you name it, except for sound. ..."
I don't mean to sound paranoid, but for some reason, and especially in America, music lovers who appreciate good sound (aka audiophiles) the way some food lovers appreciate high-quality ingredients and presentation (aka gourmets) are under constant attack. You either fight back actively, or you accept being Swift-Boated and lose. I implore you to take action, write that letter, and do whatever you can when you see audiophiles attacked in the media or wherever.